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My Internet: Michael Idov
The screenwriter-author is far more interested in AR than VR.
Embedded is your essential guide to what’s good on the internet, by Kate Lindsay and Nick Catucci.
Every week, we quiz a “very online” person for their essential guide to what’s good on the internet.
Today we welcome Michael Idov, a many-hyphenate whose occupations include author (Dressed Up for a Riot: Misadventures in Putin’s Moscow, Ground Up), screenwriter and director for movies (Leto, The Humorist) and television (Deutschland 89, Londongrad), journalist (“The Improbable Rise and Endless Heroism of Volodymir Zelensky”), and former editor-in-chief of GQ Russia. He’s also a composer and songwriter with an electronic chamber-pop band, Friends of the Oval, that’s releasing a lovely album, Modern Mores, on BandCamp October 1 and on streaming services October 15. Listen to “Adventurer (OST Jetlag)” here.
Michael sold out-of-print VHS tapes to collectors on eBay in the late ‘90s, sounds like fucking Žižek when he gets started on NFTs, and says we haven’t even begun to fathom what the world will be like in 10 years, when all languages have become mutually legible in real time thanks to augmented reality. —Nick
EMBEDDED: What’s a recent meme or other post that made you laugh?
MICHAEL IDOV: Honestly, any meme mocking the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some are brutal but cathartic; some are unsharable in polite society. Other than that, probably when Liz Truss became Prime Minister and a bunch of world leaders congratulated a random lady with the Twitter handle @liztruss, who then began to answer them. It was all in her tone and lasted about 24 hours, which is how long memes should last.
EMBEDDED: What types of videos do you watch on YouTube?
MICHAEL IDOV: Let’s see! Opening YouTube now and going by the recommendations on the right (which, by the way, tend to be pretty accurate). Just as I thought, mostly ad hoc instructional stuff. Random late-night TV clips, like Norm McDonald on Conan 20 years ago. Honest Trailers and Pitch Meetings (I know, very basic of me, but a fact’s a fact). I can have a song I like hang in my tabs for months. Right now it’s this one. I’ll just put it on and go to another tab. Weirdly for someone who makes both music and videos, I lately find myself bored to death by most music videos … and downright enraged if the song doesn’t start within thirty seconds. You’re not sneaking your little indie movie past me!
EMBEDDED: Do you use TikTok?
MICHAEL IDOV: Nope. I see whatever crosses over to Twitter or Instagram, but the TikTok model doesn’t work for me. I want to follow whomever I follow. All of my social media are set up to be straight timelines with as few algorithmic intrusions as possible—which is actually very hard to maintain, because they use the “your friends interacted with this” loophole to keep larding your feed with recommendations.
EMBEDDED: What do you use Instagram for?
MICHAEL IDOV: I still try to use it like it’s 2012. Travel, food, cats. Completely anodyne stuff I won’t mind looking back at years later. When the war in Ukraine began, some people I know began to use it to document atrocities, and a few contacted me saying they’re disappointed that I didn't. But that’s the one context where it would feel to me like “virtue signaling” (a term I don’t normally use!). I mean, I live in L.A. I send money to refugees and the Ukrainian army, I try to help in other ways, but posting about it between photos of palm trees would feel a little ridiculous. Twitter seems more forgiving of that kind of contrast, because it’s more generally understood to be a flow of unrelated thoughts. On Instagram, you either pivot to seriousness entirely or you don’t.
EMBEDDED: Do you tweet? Why?
MICHAEL IDOV: Yes; and no idea. I have a weird Twitter history. I started pretty early, in 2009, on my main account (@michaelidov). Never got a blue check, by the way, despite being a staff writer at New York. Then in 2011 I was invited to go to Moscow and edit GQ Russia, and I figured I’d need a separate Russian-language account for that. It was a pretty public job, so it quickly got to 25K followers (and 70K on Facebook), which is the point when you start feeling like you’re running a little media project that needs to be fed and maintained. And it’s a feeling I hate. Plus, they take social media way too seriously over there, largely because actual independent media have been destroyed by the government. (Right now, Twitter is officially banned, too, but everyone is still on it). So even when you’re a semi-nobody like me, you tweet something and a screenshot of it becomes cross-platform news—especially on Telegram, which the Russians have adapted into a kind of chaotic news medium by mass-subscribing to anonymous channels. It’s a bit much. So, for the last two years or so, I’ve been slowly shrinking my presence there. I deleted Facebook entirely in 2021, and stopped tweeting from the Russian account a few months before the war, when it was already obvious that the country and the culture were completely off the rails.
One thing that took me years to realize is that having a large-ish Twitter readership doesn’t mean that people want anything *other* than the tweets. You keep telling yourself “I’ll need this platform when I have a new project out,” and no you won’t. If I put up a link to a movie I spent three years making, it’ll get zero engagement. Right now my band has an album coming out that I’m insanely proud of, but I have no idea how I’d use Twitter to get anyone to listen to it. It’s just not the right medium for clicking through to a media file. Maybe this newsletter is!
EMBEDDED: Have you ever had a post go viral? What was that experience like?
MICHAEL IDOV: What’s our floor for viral—10K likes? 50K? A few times. All Russia/Ukraine takes, I’m afraid. It’s fun to see notifications blow up, on the most basic lizard-brain level. After 1K or so, however, is when the deranged replies roll in. But I’m honestly not very good at social media, because I tend to recoil from what works. I mean, I can clearly see that a bunch of my Twitter readers are there for Kremlinology. But most of the time I just want to tweet about music and movies, including my own.
EMBEDDED: Who’s the coolest person who follows you?
MICHAEL IDOV: Oh, that’s easy—Luke Haines of The Auteurs and Black Box Recorder, one of my favorite songwriters in the world.
EMBEDDED: Which big celebrity has your favorite internet presence, and why?
MICHAEL IDOV: I love Aimee Mann’s Instagram, which mostly consists of four-panel comics about various mundane interactions in her life and which she appears to be doing as a form of therapy. Of course, I’m not sure if Aimee Mann is a “big celebrity” anywhere other than my head. I don’t follow any megastars.
EMBEDDED: Where do you tend to get your news?
MICHAEL IDOV: 80 percent Twitter, 20 percent my Apple News screen that I’ve rigged up to only show The Guardian and Vulture.
EMBEDDED: What does “cancel culture” mean to you?
MICHAEL IDOV: Any historic realignment of values means a panicky relitigation of what it means to be “good.” It dies down once the new orthodoxy is in place. I don’t think “cancel culture” exists in the sense conservatives use the term, because being canceled is by definition becoming voiceless, and we can hear most “canceled” voices quite clearly. Not to mention that there’s a whole alternative monetization system waiting for those willing to turn their supposed ostracism into a badge of honor.
There is, however, clearly a pile-on culture, a term I wish we used more because it’s more accurate about the mechanism at the heart of it. People like to reassert their belonging to a group through ritual collective banishment of someone from that group. That weird dopamine-cortisol cocktail of collective righteous indignation is extremely seductive. It’s always been, but now you can band together with total strangers to mine it from thin air.
EMBEDDED: Do you subscribe to any Substacks or other independent newsletters? What are your favorites?
MICHAEL IDOV: This very newsletter, Blackbird Spyplane—which is the epitome of my favorite genre, “smart people write about incredibly minute things”—and music reviews (Stereogum, Ryan Schreiber’s What’s Good, a weekly album guide by a UK-based Russian journalist named Pasha Borisov).
EMBEDDED: Are you playing any games right now?
MICHAEL IDOV: The only game I ever truly loved is Monument Valley, which is less a game than, I don’t know, digital prayer beads. Otherwise, just dorky word games. That said, I’m really excited about next year’s Expanse game from Telltale and Deck Nine, because I love The Expanse. A lot of it is about gray-area moral dilemmas, which should lend itself really well to the game format. I might also get that game where you’re a cat. Or, failing that, Goat Simulator 3.
EMBEDDED: What’s something you might want to do in the metaverse? What’s something you wouldn’t want to do?
MICHAEL IDOV: I’m far more interested in AR than VR. And the thing that interests me most is bespoke linguistic environments. Let’s say you only speak and read Latvian, but you can easily function in, say, Nepalese countryside, because all the signage and speech are in Latvian as far as you’re concerned. I don’t think we have even begun to fathom yet what the world can be like when all languages become mutually legible in real time, something that’s literally ten years away.
EMBEDDED: What purpose do you see in NFTs?
MICHAEL IDOV: None, aside from a study case. It’s like a head-on collision between two dead ideas—“anything can be art,” which started out revolutionary and devolved into late-capitalist nonsense, and “anything can be currency,” which, well, same.
The financialization of the economy—including the art market—is now at such a level that whatever new product you introduce ends up as a speculative asset, which erases the product itself; it’s just a thing you borrow against. The only interesting question, from the art standpoint, then becomes “why does this purely notional money avatar look the way it does.” There are presidents on dollar bills because they’re backed by the concept of U.S imperial power; similarly, dumb little userpic-y images became the prevailing NFT aesthetic because that’s the power iconography of the epic-bacon Rick and Morty Harambe libertarianism. It’s an amulet to summon Elon Musk. I have just re-read this answer and I sound like fucking Žižek but oh well. When else is anyone going to ask me this!
EMBEDDED: Do you text people voice notes? If not, how do you feel about getting them?
MICHAEL IDOV: The only people in my life who routinely use voice notes are movie actors, and I think that says something.
EMBEDDED: What’s your go-to emoji, and what does it mean to you?
MICHAEL IDOV: I’m of the emojis-are-embarrassing school. Sometimes I will do the terse eyeless smiley )). What I really like, though, is Telegram allowing users to make their own sticker packs—there are some bizarre masterpieces in there.
EMBEDDED: What’s a playlist, song, album, or style of music you’ve listened to a lot lately?
MICHAEL IDOV: Aethiopes, by Billy Woods, is phenomenal. I actually like it more than Kendrick’s latest. I’ve played the hell out of the new Metric. I also love this album by Avramova. I know nothing about her, and it’s a bit hard to listen to random new Russian artists lately (you want to check their politics first, and the music itself will rarely tell you), but I think we’re safe here.
EMBEDDED: Do you pay for a music streaming service, and if so, which one? When was the last time you bought a music download or vinyl record, CD, or tape?
MICHAEL IDOV: Apple Music. I’m trapped in it. I’m one of those dorks who digitized a thousand CDs in like 2004 and have been on the hook for “iTunes Match” ever since. I do love BandCamp, both as a listener and as a musician; all three of us in Friends of the Oval are. We’re releasing our album there first. The last thing I bought on vinyl was an obscure 45” reissue by Early Clover & The Georgia Soul Drifters, which makes me sound way hipper than I am. My normal vinyl purchases are, like, Tindersticks.
EMBEDDED: If you could only keep Netflix, Disney, HBO Max, or one other streaming service, which would it be, and why?
MICHAEL IDOV: Big fan of Hulu lately. Good library and great originals: The Bear, The Dropout, Reboot, Andrew Garfield: Mormon Detective. It’s going to be sad, though, when all the other companies pull their stuff to their own platforms and it inevitably merges with Disney+ and becomes Disney After Dark.
EMBEDDED: Is there any content you want but can’t seem to find anywhere online?
MICHAEL IDOV: The site and the overall tone I miss the most is The Awl, but I do recognize that it was a product of a very specific moment in time, and a rejoinder to the Gawkerverse which no longer exists. I still think there’s room for a Punk New Yorker, though. (Come to think of it, that must be a part of why I like Blackbird Spyplane—I can easily see it being a recurring section on the Awl!)
EMBEDDED: Do you regularly use eBay, Depop, or other shopping platforms? What’s a recent thing you’ve bought or sold?
MICHAEL IDOV: I was a pretty early eBay adapter, and as a seller at that—in 1998-99, a friend of mine and I rifled through New York junk shops for out-of-print VHS tapes and sold them to collectors. But I pretty much kept all my shopping offline until the pandemic broke me. In 2020, I started buying shit off Instagram, which I’d never done before. It was mostly fancy household items—Citizenry, Our Place, Fellow, you name it—because we weren’t going anywhere so we might as well nest. I will occasionally check Yoox, though their men’s stuff is not as good as women’s, and I like Chairish.
EMBEDDED: What’s the last thing that brought you joy online?
MICHAEL IDOV: Watching a NASA satellite slam into an asteroid (on purpose).